6 months after U.S. pulls back, can Iraq go it alone?
6 months after U.S. pulls back, can Iraq go it alone?
- By Jim Michaels, USA TODAY
Falah al-Sayegh is the manager of a $100 million construction project to build a shopping mall and luxury hotel in downtown Baghdad.
BAGHDAD – Sitting in his cramped construction site office, Falah al-Sayegh lays out his company’s vision: a 160,000-square-foot shopping mall, medical clinic and luxury hotel topped by a restaurant with sweeping views of the city.
Al-Sayegh steps out of the trailer and points to construction well underway on the $100 million project. Vast cranes loom over the site, and a 10-floor parking garage and medical clinic is partly completed.
“This is the talk of the town,” says al-Sayegh as he strides across the muddy construction site.
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Six months after the last U.S. combat troops left, an Iraq free of Saddam Hussein and overseen by a democratically elected government midwifed by theUnited States is standing on its own despite ever-present dangers from within and outside its borders.
But the United States paid a heavy price in Iraq. More than 4,400 American servicemembers died during eight years of war and occupation, and according to recent polls, most Americans say the war wasn’t worth it.
Hundreds of Iraqis have been killed in terror attacks since the last U.S. troops withdrew in December. Iran continues to retain ties to Shiite militias operating in Iraq. Political differences between the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds have frequently boiled over into threats of civil war. The government struggles to provide basic services, such as electricity.
Yet most Iraqis seem to feel that politics and feuds should not be permitted to impede what really matters: continued progress in their day-to-day lives reflected by an improving economy, booming oil revenue and a representative government.
“Iraqis are bored of political fighting,” says Ali Alrobaiy, a marketing director for a car company in Baghdad.
Signs the country is making progress toward stability abound despite headlines about political rivalries and terror attacks, the latest a suicide car bombing Monday of a Shiite foundation’s headquarters in Baghdad that killed 25 people.
Oil production is at its highest levels in decades, says the latest OPEC report, higher than almost any time under Saddam. Gross domestic product in 2011 more than doubled from the year before, says the International Monetary Fund, noting that Iraq’s economy is expected to expand 11% this year. Foreign investors that were banned under Saddam, such as Exxon/Mobil, have been welcomed back and are developing the country’s vast resources.
Anecdotal evidence is apparent, too: New cars jam Baghdad streets; cafes and restaurants are busy late into the night. Most significantly, political and religious differences that led to a sectarian bloodbath in 2007 have been limited largely to debates in Parliament or in the press. Experts say it might all add up to “stability.”
“I don’t see anybody with a fallback plan of sending tanks out to close down Parliament,” says James Jeffrey, who just completed his tour as U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
By Jim Michaels, USA TODAY
A $100 million construction project will build a shopping mall and luxury hotel in downtown Baghdad.
The improvements come as the rest of the region is racked by warfare and uncertainty. Syria’s government is killing thousands of people to maintain its dictatorship. Egypt, despite elections, is run by its military, and minority religions fear the imposition of Islamic law. Iran is pursuing a nuclear program that the West has said it will use any means to stop. Yemen is in a state of war against an al-Qaeda insurgency, and Libya has no government months after eliminating dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Iraq looks stable by comparison, some say.
“The political system is one of the best in the region,” says Zainab Al-Suwaij, who was born in Iraq and heads the American Islamic Congress, which advocates for improving relations with Muslims in the USA.
She says Iraqis are getting tired of politicians but retain faith in the system. “They are proud of it.”
Threats to stability
Americans are not sure the effort, which cost the United States at least $800 billion, was worth it. In December, a CNN poll said 53% of Americans said they felt that sending U.S. troops to Iraq was a mistake. Even if Iraq has avoided the chaos and violence that some predicted in the months since U.S. troops left the country, plenty still could go wrong.
Constant political and sectarian fighting has threatened to bring the government to a grinding halt. Iraqis complain about corruption throughout the government. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s critics say he has consolidated power in ways that resemble a return to dictatorship.
“The worst-case scenario is that a no-confidence vote is successfully reached and al-Maliki ignores its authority and remains in power,” says Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “At that point, we enter a very sensitive and unstable period, adding a constitutional crisis on top of a political crisis.”
Iraqis complain bitterly about the lack of electricity despite the country’s billions of dollars in oil revenue.
Homes in Baghdad and many other parts of the country rely on expensive generators because the government is unable to provide continuous electricity and other basic services, such as clean water and regular garbage pickup.
Haider Hasnawi, who owns a popular Baghdad restaurant, sits at one of his tables during the lull between breakfast and lunch and points out the window. “The street cleaners work hard while the government does nothing,” he says.
By Karim Kadim, AP
Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr chant slogans during a protest in Baghdad on Wednesday.
Iraqi politicians say they are learning about democracy and are far from Western standards of governance.
At a recent Baghdad provincial council meeting, two Sunni council members are listed on the agenda as being on excused absence, having been accused of terrorism by the Shiite-dominated government. Four supporters of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr storm out of the meeting when they learn an American is present.
“I know it’s not ideal,” Adnan al-Kenani says with a shrug. He joined the council more than a year ago to fill the position of a politician who was assassinated. “Democracy needs practice.”
The lights in the large paneled room dim, a reminder of the government’s deficiencies.
The topics of discussion indicate that Iraq might be settling into representative government. Items on the agenda range from compensation for citizens who claimed losses during the war years, to keeping mosques open at night so students can study in air-conditioned rooms.
“Democracy needs time,” says Kamel al-Zeidy, chairman of the council, reclining in a chair among the gilded furniture in his cavernous office. “In the United States, it took 200 years. We are headed in the right direction.”
Two years after national elections, Iraq’s government is not fully formed amid bitter disputes between Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish political groups. The leading political parties have failed to agree on a Cabinet, and the critical Interior and Defense Ministries don’t have permanent leaders.
Al-Maliki’s critics have tried to generate enough support for a no-confidence vote that would bring down the government, saying he refuses to share power.
“He runs the country alone,” says lawyer Hussan Salman, 45, putting aside the newspaper he was reading in a crowded Baghdad cafe.
Al-Maliki’s supporters say he is trying to build a government under difficult circumstances and is not amassing personal power.
“He will keep going,” says Ali al-Mousawi, an adviser to al-Maliki.
Critics have said the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops has meant the United States can do little more than watch as Iraq stumbles along and hope for the best.
“I think the White House recognizes the severity of the situation but also recognizes the lack of options,” Mardini, the analyst, says. Vice President Biden, President Obama’s point man on Iraq, has urged al-Maliki to reconcile with political rivals.
Still, some Iraqis say they lived better before the war and are uncomfortable with violence — al-Qaeda launches bomb attacks in an effort to trigger sectarian violence — and political uncertainty that they face regularly. Prices are rising, and the country can’t provide continuous power as summer temperatures rise.
“My preference is for a monarchy,” says Mohammed Abdulghafar Zebala, 69, whose family has run a storefront fruit juice shop in Baghdad’s old quarter since 1900. “There was law and respect.” The shop’s walls are plastered with photos of Iraqi kings, dictators and politicians who have visited his storefront.
“Political debate is new to our culture,” says Zuhair Humadi, an education adviser to al-Maliki.
Investment in Iraq’s future
Analysts say Iraq’s economy might help bring stability despite the political wrangling.
“In the long run, oil could become the glue that holds Iraq together if they can overcome disagreements over how to share the oil wealth,” said James Phillips, a Middle Eastanalyst at the Heritage Foundation, a think-tank.
Iraq’s economy is driven by oil, an industry that is starting to pick up steam. Foreign business activity is also humming in Iraq, up 40% in 2011, according to Dunia Frontier Consultants. Businesses are willing to bet on the country’s long-term stability, analysts say.
But the government dominates Iraq’s economy, so rising public salaries are feeding the nation’s recovery.
“People have better incomes,” says Duragan Ismail, 25, a salesman in a Baghdad shop that sells wedding dresses. He said the typical cost of a wedding, which includes a dowry, is $20,000. “They want to show off,” he says.
“We still think the situation will be better,” says Bahaa Kazen, an engineering professor at Baghdad University. Kazen spent time at MIT, where he helped develop self-cleaning solar panels, but he decided to return to Iraq.
“I feel I can make a change here,” Kazen says.